Multiplication Center


August 12, 2013

My challenge has been to condense a magical summer month that began with David Brooks in Aspen, hit a second high with Jim Collins in Boulder-and continues in responses from others and a rush of new thoughts for me. Unrelated to any speaker but highest on the list was Linda's 35th and final radiation treatment, leaving her positively giddy and me deeply grateful.


It's a rare speech that can bring me to tears.  But there I was on the third row, and there was David Brooks, the cultural observer I admire most, unaware that everything he said that morning was my life homily, my marching orders-all I've thought and never said for lack of his eloquence-as he delivered bald truth to the infamous 1 percent at the Aspen Ideas Festival . . . namely that every person has a sin nature.

That was a long sentence, I know, but the topic is a bit breathtaking.

Side note: To tell you that Goldman Sachs' Hank Paulson sat just a few seats away is to say I felt a few times as if I was eavesdropping on a pointed conversation. In fact, I may have looked like a tennis fan in Wimbledon bleachers, my eyes swinging from Brooks to Paulson to Brooks to Paulson. I tried to imagine how this figure-this central figure from the Bush administration-was taking in Brooks' words.

One more note is that Brooks attended the University of Chicago, a Great Books school, where the curriculum has an agenda.  It teaches students to see all problems as part of an ongoing chain of Western Civilization and worthy of our greatest minds. And that touches on two of my most central themes: the chain of great ideas . . . and the high call to put our best minds on our worst problems.

Of course, I mentioned Brooks' Aspen speech in my last Museletter, but I didn't say enough. (A person can't say enough.)  And given that his words ring on in my head, let me give you some high points.

Brooks said that day that America has lost even the vocabulary for character.  When Christian Smith, a sociologist at Norte Dame, asked college students to name their most recent moral dilemma, 70 percent of them could not come up with one. When Smith pressed, Brooks said, the students he interviewed fell back to “emotivism”: What feels right for me is moral for me and if it feels right for you, then that's moral for you.

Brooks once asked Princeton professors, “Do you instill character in your students?”  The professors said, well, yes, students should develop character, but we wouldn't know what to say.

So from our children's early ages, Brooks said, we train them to swim, play soccer, play the oboe, master the S.A.T. vocabulary list before preschool (do I exaggerate?),
“. . .  but in the most important thing, character, they're sort of on their own.”

So I press my hands against my temples and think, for goodness' sake, without imposing a single value, merely teaching history, those Princeton professors could tell their students, as Brooks told us, about the character code that has stretched through every generation until ours.

Brooks picked up that chain in 490 B.C. when relatively tiny Athens got wind of an invasion and the city's men moved out to meet the Persian Army under Darius the Great. In B.C. Greece virtues like courage, assertiveness, prowess . . . were in the drinking water because the Homeric code called for displays of excellence. The Homeric man competed, and victors were unabashedly celebrated. (An Olympic medal winner ate free for life.)

Machiavelli, Napoleon, the Romans . . . all of them showcase the Greek Way. John Kennedy and every politician since have wanted to appear resolute, brave, never self-doubting-echoing the Homeric code. You see it in every action movie and every sports hero.

And that's one code.

Centuries later a second code turned Greek morality upside down.  This code was in the Bible, and it traded in paradox: The lofty of spirit cared for the downtrodden; greatness required meekness. Power came through dependence on God, strength by vulnerability, wisdom through awareness of one's ignorance. You lose your life to find it.

This second code came alive in Jesus, and now Brooks really had my attention. He told his Aspen listeners about Dorothy Day, the activist and devout Catholic convert whose tempestuous, passionate, disordered life found rest and purpose in imitation of Christ.

Western Civilization, he said, is the attempt to fuse those two codes. He quoted the Jewish writer Joseph Soloveitchik, who called it the Adam 1 and an Adam 2 in each of us. Adam 1 competes for honor, achievement; Adam 2 holds the cooperative virtues. Good shorthand.

The chain runs out, Brooks said, the fusion is defused, so to speak, by 2013. Gone are the rich struggle, the strength and nobility of working out life between our dual natures. Gone are studies in Western Civ, the heroic code and, in Brooks' words, “the idea that we have sin baked into us.”

As for what's left-someone find me a Thesaurus. Christian Smith says we're reduced to “inarticulateness.” Alasdair MacIntyre says we move now in “the soft worlds of motivism.”  Alan Blum says the world has come to “easygoing relativism.”  Robert Bella's term is “expressive individualism.”  Christopher Leash frames us now in a single word:  “Narcissism.”

Then, just before he closed, Brooks left us on a provocative high point.  He said good people are still around, of course, and he named two men who display that merged Adam 1 and Adam 2.  The first name escapes me because I was so taken with his second example: Jim Collins.

Collins went into business research, Brooks said, and emerged a moral philosopher. And Collins' every book celebrates a sort of hero, never a Jack Welch or Donald Trump but some picture of healthy dualism: a quiet, unassuming CEO known for discipline, rigor, doggedness, responsibility . . .

And that's where I leave you as I prepare to tell, in the next Museletter, how the well-fused Jim Collins, that blend of competition and humility, only a few weeks later played against a strong backboard of seasoned Halftimers and took “Good to Great” from corporate to individual applications.

How many of you read “Good to Great” and found yourself fitting the principles not just to your company but to your personal life?

Fasten your seatbelts.   Good stuff ahead.

Watch Brooks' talk at The Aspen Ideas Festival: The Inverse Logic of Life

As always, I welcome your thoughts.  You can email me personally at, or converse with the entire community at

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